Legislative Debates (21 April 2006)

75-Minute Debate

From Hansard - 21 April 2006

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Funding for Boards of Education

The Assembly was debating the following motion put forward by Rod Gantefoer (Sask Party - Melfort):

That this Assembly condemn the government for not providing adequate funding to all boards of education to cover the increased costs of delivering education programs, resulting in increased mill rates and further tax increases to ratepayers.

Mr. D'Autremont: — Thank you, Madam Deputy Chair. This is a very interesting debate that touches the very heart of Saskatchewan. It touches the people and the students and the children of this province. So I’d like to read a headline from one of my local papers dealing with this very issue. And the headline in the Carlyle Observer says, “Significant impact of the provincial budget announcement.”

Now in itself that’s a fairly generic comment on the budget. It says it has a significant impact — doesn’t say good or bad. But the article itself really explains the feelings of rural residents as to what this government has done to education across rural Saskatchewan. It talks about:

The provincial restructuring initiative and regional pooling has resulted in an estimated loss of provincial grant revenue to this area [southeast Saskatchewan] of over 5.3 million dollars.

And I’ll quote again:

This is a loss of 56% of the provincial grant previously received for public education in the southeast.

And we’re talking the South East Cornerstone School Division — the Weyburn School Division — Madam Deputy Speaker. And they have taken a hit of 56 per cent of their provincial grant money.

Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, that is a huge hit. That means that the dollars that are going in to support education can only come from one other place, and that’s from the property tax payers of the southeast Saskatchewan.

And while the minister in reading her speech may have said that there was changes in the oil and gas revenues, yes there have been in that area. But when the division sets the mill rate it doesn’t just target that on to those industries that have developed, on to the oil and gas industry. Everybody is affected by that increased mill rate. Whether you’re the smallest business person, the smallest farmer, whether you’re a homeowner working for the Department of Highways — whomever it may be — whether you’re a schoolteacher in the division, you pay that additional mill rate. And there will be an increase in that mill rate.

The old Bengough-Weyburn Rural Division they amalgamated a few years ago . . . I don’t remember the name of that division, the new name that they had picked. Everybody just thought of it as Weyburn Rural or Bengough. And they’re going to face up to a 50 per cent increase in their mill rate.

An Hon. Member: — South Central.

Mr. D’Autremont: — Now when you’re talking . . . The past minister says South Central. The individual families that are going to be paying that don’t simply look at the mill rate. They don’t simply look at what their assessment is. They look at the real dollars they spent on education property taxes last year. They look at the real dollars that they’re spending this year. And notwithstanding the government’s promise of some tax relief on property taxes — an ad hoc tax relief; nothing in place permanently; it’s year-to-year announcements — notwithstanding that, those families, farms, businesses, individuals are all going to face paying more money for education.

And, Madam Deputy Speaker, that goes counter to what the Minister of Finance was saying in question period — that there would be no tax increase. Madam Deputy Speaker, there most assuredly will be a tax increase for a good many people in the Weyburn School Division.

It’s not like the Department of Education didn’t know about it, because I’ll quote again from this article in the Carlyle Observer. I quote:

The Board [meaning the school division board] was proactive in sharing its concerns with [the] Department of Learning officials two months prior to the budget. Property tax relief for agricultural producers, although welcome by the Board of Education, provides no ability for the Board to reduce the burden of education property taxes to all taxpayers of the southeast.

Most of the taxpayers in the Southeast will see a property tax increase even after you have subtracted any small amount of money that may have come from the Premier’s much-belated announcement on property tax relief. It was announced in the 2003 election campaign and it’s finally, a little bit of it, going to be delivered this year.

You know, so I understand the government members opposite look with some skepticism when members of the opposition stand and talk about issues. They seem to believe that members on this side of the House are unaware of the issues and don’t know what the real concerns are, you know. And I have to question whether the minister knows what the real concerns are when it comes to education, when she’s afraid to stray from a prepared text in talking on this very issue, madam. She had to read her speech because she was afraid to stray from whatever it was that her officials had written for her.

I’d like to read from an editorial, also from the Carlyle paper by Jerry Mamer. Now Jerry was the former mayor of Stoughton, but that’s not what his claim to fame would be on this particular issue. His claim to fame on this, Madam Deputy Speaker, would be that Jerry was the long-time principal of the Stoughton K to 12 school, so very familiar with education, very familiar with education in the Southeast, Madam Deputy Speaker. And he is a new . . . he would have been . . . His school would be within the boundary of the South East Cornerstone, the Weyburn School Division.

And he goes on to say in his editorial, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I quote, “This certainly looks like a cash grab to me.” And that’s exactly what’s happening, that the system that is taking place here is grabbing more dollars from the families in that school division.

And as my colleagues have pointed out earlier, it’s certainly not the only school division because there’s eight or nine of them for a total of $13 million, which is more money than the Minister of Finance put in as additional money in this year’s budget in the Department of Education.

So Mr. Mamer goes to say, “The school division in the southwest is rumoured to be thinking of eliminating up to fifty teaching positions.” So this affects not only property taxpayers. It affects not only students. It affects teachers very dramatically. And I know that the southeast school division is in a very same position. The South West School Division is looking at cutting up to 50 teachers. I know that the Weyburn School Division is looking at cutting up to 40 to 50 teachers. It’s going to have a huge impact across the whole area.

That means student ratios are going to go up. Yes, there’s a 164 less students in the Weyburn School Division. If you cut out even 40, that’s one teacher for every four students that were lost. I don’t think that student/teacher ratios in that division are 1:4. So this is going to have a huge impact in the communities. It’s going to have an impact with those that are available to support communities in total, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker, Mr. Mamer goes on to talk about that “While there’s a moratorium on our schools at the present time, that will be coming off at the end of this year, and there will be significant closures of schools.”

You know, the minister talked about the level of support that the province provides for education. In the Weyburn School Division next year, there will be no level of support. The property taxpayers of that area will have to support the education costs 100 per cent on their backs.

And schools are closed already. In the last two years Gainsborough School has closed. The Storthoaks School has closed. The Alida School has closed. And on the chopping block may very well be a couple of more schools — just in my constituency, not in the whole division. Carievale and Manor Schools would also be in jeopardy. So when the minister is talking about support, the province is not providing the necessary support. And it’s hurting the education of the students in southeast Saskatchewan, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Following the seventy-five minute debate, there is a question-and-answer period. Mr. D'Autremont had a question for Ms. Higgins, and Mr. Thomson had a question for Mr. D'Autremont.  The following section begins at 2:16:51 in the video.

Mr. D’Autremont: — Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. You know, I’m listening to the hypothetical questions from the members opposite and I’m glad for their hypothetical questions because their questions recognize that the next government in Saskatchewan is going to be the Saskatchewan Party government.

But we would like to deal with today’s issues, not the future government, Madam Deputy Chair. The Minister for Finance says there will be no tax increases in the South East Cornerstone School Division. So I would like to ask the minister of Education, the minister of Education, since they cut the budget by $5.6 million there is no tax increase, how . . . Is the minister going to guarantee to the students and teachers of this division that there will be no program cuts, no teachers will be fired, no support staff will be eliminated, and no schools closure?

My question is to the minister of Education.

Hon. Ms. Higgins: — Well, Madam Speaker, it’s been ongoing in this House that the Saskatchewan Party, whenever there’s a report put forward, they jump out front and say, it’s our idea and implement it. Well they did that with Vicq, but Madam Speaker, they avoided the harmonization issue. Now also, Madam Speaker, with the Boughen report, they also jumped out in front of it and said, implement, implement. There’s a number of them on record to say, implement the Boughen report.

So, Mr. Speaker, I’m curious. Do they support provincial pooling? Do they support that recommendation also? Well, Madam Deputy Speaker, the member from the opposition there, he criticized me for reading a speech. Well maybe when I’ve been here as long as he has, I’ll have the practice and I can stand up and wing it.

Hon. Mr. Thomson: — My question is to the member for Cannington. Does the member not understand the difference between the old Sunrise Division and the new South East Cornerstone Division? Does he not understand how the difference in the mill rate affects, or is he purposely, is he purposely attempting to draw a different conclusion?

Mr. D’Autremont: — Thank you, Madam Deputy Chair. I certainly do understand what happened in southeast Saskatchewan with the forced amalgamation of five school divisions. What it means is that a significant number of people in that school division are going to be facing real dollar increases in their property taxes — very, very real property taxes.

In fact is the one school division, old school division, is looking at a 50 per cent increase in their property taxes — a 50 per cent increase. That’s while their schools are being closed; their kids are being forced to be bused for hours on the bus. All of this in the name of that member’s — when he was the minister of Education — idea of better savings and better education.

Madam Deputy Speaker, his program is not going to deliver better education to the people of rural Saskatchewan.

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